Friday, February 12, 2010

272 Words and Not A Pangram

Though Abraham Lincoln disliked being called "Abe," I'm sure he's granted Executive Clemency to puzzlemakers who use this 3-letter moniker. When I come across ABE in a puzzle, I think of this great President who struggled to preserve a nation during a civil war. It's hard to imagine the burden that fell on Lincoln's shoulders.

He is praised for a folksy speaking manner, accessible to every demographic. Lincoln's speeches lack the fancy vocab and five-dollar words associated with slick politicians. And so, U.S. Government officials decided to honor this plainspoken President in the most logical way . . . they put him on the five dollar bill.

Lincoln's Address at Gettysburg is one of the most quoted speeches in American history. Like a beautifully-crafted puzzle, the Address has an architectural structure supported by repeated, accessible elements:
  • The word count is only 272 words -- roughly the size of two Sunday puzzle grids (140 words each).
  • There's a clear, consistent theme:  Preservation of the Union.
  • There are three distinct parts: a reference to the past (Four score and seven years ago . . .); the present (We have come to dedicate a portion of that field . . . ); and the future (. . .government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.)
  • Lincoln never uses the personal pronoun "I" -- he repeatedly uses "We." 
  • The Gettysburg Address is not a pangram; (click on the photo below for the full text.)
A pangram is an entity (a poem, a puzzle, a sentence) that contains all 26 letters of the alphabet. Lincoln spoke for three minutes at Gettysburg, yet his speech is not a pangram. He had every opportunity to use words containing A through Z--after all, he's not required to interlock letters, crossword-style. Easy, right?

In the 146 years since Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address, no one has noticed or cared that this 272-word speech is not a pangram.

Pangrams have no place in the literary world--unless one considers "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" a good read. This is why pangrams don't matter in puzzles. Lincoln chose words, not letters. Similarly, good puzzles are driven by words, not individual letters with high-Scrabble counts. It's a crossword puzzle.  

A good puzzle with a strong theme and fill may naturally evolve into a pangram. Nothing wrong with that.

But watch out for pre-fab pangrams--crosswords overloaded with junky, obscure abbreviations (look for the J's, Q's, X's.) The result: unfair crossings that irritate solvers.

An unfortunate byproduct of puzzlemaking software, the Premediated CramGram is the canned spaghetti of puzzlemaking. 

If I have the choice of using EXT or EAT in a puzzle (and I know that the "X" in EXT would make it a pangram which would trigger an unfair crossing), I'd use EAT, clued as "Take sides?"  The "X" isn't "missing" from my puzzle. I chose not to use it.    

Solver's Takeaway:  If you dislike a puzzle but you're not sure why--check to see if it's a pangram. That might explain the unfair crossings and weird abbreviations. Compassionate solvers, not wanting to hurt a puzzle's feelings, might soft-pedal a bad solving experience by saying: "This puzzle is lame, but at least it's a pangram."  My friends, it's probably lame because it's a pangram.

Puzzles don't earn "extra points" for being pangrams. I've worked with many editors across the puzzle markets--no one has ever asked me to make pangrams or puzzles with high-Scrabble-count words. Until there's a Pulitzer Prize category for authors who use the entire alphabet in the first 78 words of their novels, pangrams don't matter one iota in puzzlemaking.

And so, today we celebrate Abraham Lincoln's 201st birthday. Here you'll find Sam Waterston's recitation of the Gettysburg Address. It's a fitting birthday tribute to this remarkable President.

The soundtrack to this Lincoln photo montage is from Ken Burns's magnificent documentary, The Civil War. Jay Unger wrote the "Ashokan Farewell" for the film which first aired on PBS in 1990, but the haunting tune sounds like a period piece from Lincoln's time.

Thank you, Mr. President.  Happy Birthday to you!


Joon said...

you said it! your blog post, by the way, is pangrammatic. but that's just fine, because the pangram arose naturally in the course of saying what you wanted to say.

and what a lovely presidents' day puzzle in the WSJ! i was distinctly befuddled by the 1947 NFL player, but it made for a great "aha" moment when the theme revealed itself.

Elizabeth said...

Ha!! Good catch, Joon. I'm shooting for the Downhill Pangram as an Olympic event.

Those 1947 NFL players simply can't stay away from the grid. Thanks for solving the WSJ puzzle.

Happy Valentines Day!

Bruce S. said...

I just finished the Wall Street Journal puzzle and thought that it was great. I was stuck for a bit but once I got the central entry the rest flowed very nicely. I enjoy reading all your posts. Thanks.

Elizabeth said...

Bruce, thanks for taking a whack at the WSJ puzzle. I appreciate your feedback. Solving "flow" is important and it's gratifying when it works, especially in a big puzzle. Have a good Valentine's Day!

obertb said...

I don't believe that "Ashokan Farewell" was written especially for Ken Burns's Civil War series. According to a number of sources, it was written by Ungar in 1982 at his and his wife's fiddle camp in upstate New York. Burns heard the tune sometime later and incorporated it into his film.

La Liz said...

Obertb, thanks! I stand corrected. The history behind this piece is intriguing. I appreciate any background on the "Ashokan Farewell."